Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction


Glenn Brown
B. 1966
signed, titled and dated 2006 on the reverse
oil on panel
140.2 by 99 cm. 55 1/4 by 39 in.
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Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin (acquired directly from the artist)
Marcel Brient, Paris (acquired from the above in 2006)
Sotheby's, London, 15 February 2011, Lot 7 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner 


Berlin, Galerie Max Hetzler, Glenn Brown, February - March 2006, cover (installation view of the present work), pp. 21 (detail), 23 and 32 (installation view of the present work), illustrated in colour


Exh. Cat., Liverpool, Tate Liverpool; Turin, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Glenn Brown, February - October 2009, pp. 96 (detail) and 97, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

An exceptional large-scale portrait, Glenn Brown’s Declining Nude, 2006, is a modern-day incarnation of history painting at its finest. Anchored in Camille Pissarro's Self Portrait from 1873, Brown reshaped this familiar historical work to become something else entirely; a powerful, highly personal commentary on contemporary painting. Further, the present work exhibits Brown's unparalleled technical ability. Articulated with a flawless and painstaking virtuosity that matches and even usurps his nineteenth-century counterpart, Brown's painting manner arrests a sculptural illusion of depth by means of a perfectly smooth painted surface. In Declining Nude, the expressive brush strokes are flattened to a point where the work is puzzlingly free of impasto.

One of the acclaimed Young British Artists of the 1990s, Brown's approach was born out of the history of appropriation art of the late 1970s and ‘80s, where artists such as Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman took existing images and put them in different contexts. Brown however, updated this strategy for the Twenty-First Century; his work goes beyond the evacuated, postmodern quotation of pure appropriation. In his astonishing practice, Brown first uploads and manipulates his chosen source image in Photoshop, after which it undergoes a metamorphosis of contortion and inversion: colours are altered, formations cropped and stretched, compositions mirrored and flipped. The resultant image is then projected or otherwise transferred onto his chosen surface; in the present work this takes the form of a large-scale and meticulously gessoed panel. The alternations and reconstructions of the composition ultimately imbue the original image with a brand-new narrative and host of metaphorical allusion.

In Declining Nude Brown does not appropriate Pissarro’s original portrait, today housed in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, but rather a reproduction of the painting. An important part of Brown’s practice is his fascination with the misrepresentations that occur in mass reproduction, in which works created with myriad pigments are filtered through the universal four-colour printing process employed by commercial printers. As the artist explains: “Whether I see the actual painting or not doesn't matter. In the end, what is important is the nature of the reproduction I work from. In fact, it is always the somewhat sad reproduction that fires my imagination, not the real painting. It allows me space to figure out ways to adapt the colour, the form, the orientation” (Glenn Brown in conversation with Rochelle Steiner in: Exh. Cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, Glenn Brown, 2004, p. 95).

Reminiscent of Van Gogh's swirling brushwork in the paintings he made in the mental asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in the late 1880s, the depiction of Pissarro's flowing beard in Declining Nude is one of the most virtuoso passages of painting found anywhere in Brown's oeuvre. In this central part of the composition, Brown treats the facial hair, not as curls, but as dazzling loops of paint, beautifully rendered with lavish care. By contrast, in the original portrait, the beard is noteworthy for its summary description and lack of detail. Further, the lurid colour palette, more Van Gogh than Pissarro but more computer-generated image than post-Impressionist, brings the painting sharply into the contemporary moment. In Brown’s portrait the sitter’s eyes are covered by a black film, and the effect is altogether arresting; it confuses the beholder by signalling the failure of the very instrument by which we grasp and evaluate any work of portraiture, and hints at Brown’s deliberate strategy of veiling the literal and psychological depths of the expressive means of painting.

Resembling no other artist working today, Glenn Brown has crafted a practice replete with visual, conceptual and emotional complexity, and Declining Nude epitomises the position of the artist’s work at the intersection of art and technology, appropriation and invention. As professor David Freedberg has concluded, “Swiftly one realizes that Brown has invented a new way of painting, in which intense pictorial action does not leave palpable traces of paint, either as indices of the artist’s psyche or as a significantly expressive medium. These are strokes that seem uninflected by the signs of individuality. For all the traditional preparation of his pictorial work supports (carefully gessoed panels, perfectly smooth layers of underpainting) one soon realizes that Brown has set out to subvert the very basis of painting, and to undermine our expectations of it, both psychological and technical” (David Freedberg in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Glenn Brown, 1995, pp. 5-6).

Contemporary Art Evening Auction